Between the Lines: Does S.D. really need a lt. governor?

On the campaign trail in late 2010, gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard said his running mate, Matt Michels, would be a part-time lieutenant governor, just like Daugaard was.

But when Michels started his new job in January 2011, his role — and pay — had already been expanded to full time.

In fact, Lt. Gov. Michels was one of the highest paid members of the Daugaard administration, making more than, in fact, the governor. Daugaard cut his pay when he took office; and set Michels' salary at $120,000 – the highest among Daugaard's senior advisors.

Michels became one of the highest paid lieutenant governors in the United States. Until he decided to slow down just a bit.

On April 17, the 52-year-old Yankton resident said that his back hurts and he wants more time with his family. So, the No. 2 job in state government is back to a half-time position.

Michels said he developed muscular pain in his back last year while leading the state's efforts to combat flooding on the Missouri River.

Although Michels lives with his wife in Yankton, he has been driving to and from Pierre for work each week throughout the year. His plans for winding down to a part-time status as lieutenant governor includes working mostly from Yankton, and communicating with the governor and staff by email.

He still plans to be in Pierre at least one week each month and he will continue to run the Senate when the Legislature is in session.

Michels also will continue to be in charge of the South Dakota National Guard, supervise the Tribal Relations secretary and serve as interim secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

His other duties have been reassigned: Chief-of-Staff Dusty Johnson is managing the Bureau of Personnel and the state employee health plan, and policy analyst Eric Matt is taking the lead on matters related to federal health care reform.

It is hard to argue that Michels' full time service wasn't needed during 2011, especially when much of South Dakota was ravaged by the flooding Missouri River. That, however, was an extraordinary circumstance.

Which leaves us wondering: does South Dakota really need a full-time lieutenant governor? In fact, is the office really necessary?

The immediate reaction to last question among many South Dakotans may no doubt be "yes!" Our state has just finished quietly observing the 19th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that took the life of Gov. George Mickelson and several other of South Dakota's top leaders.

That, too, however, was an extraordinary circumstance.

Daugaard, himself, served as lieutenant governor with Gov. Mike Rounds as the state's chief executive. Daugaard based his successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign, in part, by citing his accomplishments as lieutenant governor. He noted that during the 2009 session, he was involved in the creation of the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority. As lieutenant governor, Daugaard also was involved in promoting the Honor Flight Program.

He took part in the transforming of the former Homestake Mine into the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, and he assisted Gov. Rounds in encouraging the establishment of wind farms in South Dakota, all while serving on various boards and councils and commissions during his eight years as lieutenant governor. Daugaard's role in the Rounds' administration was part time and paid less than $18,000 a year.

In other words, in South Dakota, depending on guidelines set by the state's chief executive, your main job as lieutenant governor may likely be to sort of hang around just in case something happens to the governor. And serve as president of the Senate when the Legislature is in session, and, well, basically run errands for the governor. It is the role that, in fact, Michels has now chosen to fill by becoming a part-time lieutenant governor.

Being lieutenant governor in South Dakota means riding the rubber chicken circuit and serving on a few committees. In this time of fiscal constraint, the person who legally succeeds the governor should actually hold a real job in state government, and do work that actually needs to be done.

In Indiana, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman has multiple roles set out by law, including head of the State Department of Agriculture, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Office of Energy Development, the Office of Defense Development, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, and the Office of Tourism Development. She also serves as the president of the Indiana Senate.

Six states, Arizona and Maine among them, somehow manage to get their work done without a lieutenant governor. If the regular governor vanishes, state senate presidents or secretaries of state step up, and the 20 gubernatorial successions nationwide in the past decade haven't created any major problems, whether or not the successor was a "lieutenant governor." Voters might dislike the person who takes the governor's seat, but at the end of the day, there is someone sitting in it, and that is the point of succession.

We certainly have nothing against the fine job that Michels has and continues to do as lieutenant governor. We believe Daugaard initially had a good idea when he expanded Michel's role to full time.

It may be time, however, for South Dakota to make the same type of hard decision that schools and local governments and private industry have had to make for the last five years now, as we've watched more and more jobs either be consolidated or eliminated entirely in both the public and private sector.

In this era of shrinking government, perhaps it's time to place the office of South Dakota lieutenant governor in the same job-jeopardy class as teachers.

It's time for South Dakota to begin thinking about changing the state constitution to either eliminate the office of lieutenant governor or at least make it a "real" job.

The role of the governor's successor then will at least be guaranteed to add some real value to South Dakota and its taxpayers.

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